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Baltimore Was Peak FAB

My name is Alex Truell, and for over 2 years now I've been the editor for the Rathe Times. I'm a casually competitive player overseeing the growth of a Flesh and Blood scene in Ripon, WI (we'll be hosting our first Road to Nationals this month).

Strategically, I try not to follow trends, instead fixating on cards and tactics just outside the mainstream.

I view this game through the lens of a player who cares about the competitive environment, but doesn't have to live in it; an optimist who loves the game, but can take a step back to critique it; and a deckbuilder who revels in novelty.

Thoughts and Baubles is an editorial space for the Rathe Times, where I discuss the game and respond to the community.

It was Sunday morning, and Mara Faris was facing down Brodie Spurlock for the second time this weekend. More specifically, it was that critical moment where the game's fate was about to be decided. Brodie's Lexi deck was making its last stand, and did so fueled by Three of a Kind.

A notification passed along the top of the screen as I watched what would be the culmination of one of these amazing players' Pro Tour weekend. "Internet will be going down in about a minute - doing a firmware upgrade." Only I didn't read that; my eyes were glued to the matchup.

So it caught me completely off guard when my connection cut out at the exact worst moment. It was sitcom-esque timing.

For most streamed feature matches, seeing the exact moments of a game isn't that important. The broader strokes are generally enough to get the themes across. But as fate and the state of the game would have it, Pro Tour: Baltimore had transcended the typical weekend event to truly showcase what the game was all about. And it was unfolding in the fleeting moments just as much as the grander movements.

Players that Defy Expectations

Going into the weekend, the general expectation was that Lexi and Oldhim would run the tables. And there was certainly truth in that; after all, the community is generally making these calls based on trends and data. Lexi was quickly returning to her role as the top Ranger after briefly bowing to Azalea with the hype of Outsiders. Oldhim was the old stalwart, picking up the Icy mantle left when the threat of a Ranger meta scared Iyslander away. The dichotomy could hardly be more poetic if Robert Frost had written it.

So yes, there were a lot of Elemental Rangers and Elemental Guardians being registered. But 15 other heroes also showed up, piloted by players who were looking to attack the meta from the side - or who simply specialized in their hero to the point where they presented a uniquely competitive prospect. Even the sole Levia went 4-0 on Day 1 before the sealed portion of the event dampened the dream!

The sheer variety seen from even the top tier of FAB players remains one of the game's greatest strengths. We have 19 heroes in Classic Constructed, and of those only Arakni and Riptide lacked representation. This doesn't even get into distinct builds within heroes - something we'll talk more about later.

The Proving Grounds

Of course, simply entering a tournament with an unexpected hero is only a small part of the equation. And here also, Flesh and Blood knocks it out of the park with gameplay that defies expectations.

One of the highlights of Day 1 was watching Taotao Chu introduce the world to a Contract-based, fatigue-focused Uzuri. This utter dark horse of a deck, piloted by one of the biggest names in Arakni, showed that the Assassin of Outsiders had more depth than she'd been given credit for. It's definitely got me reconsidering how I'm building the deck.

But there's an overall element of proving yourself that permeates these events when considered in sequence. Heroes arrive with history, and to see them once again square off with new tools and new tricks is exhilarating.

Take Tyler Horspool's Briar matchup into Charles Dunn's Oldhim during round 3. Briar has a storied past as a meta tyrant, but has narrowly dodged hitting Living Legend; and yet, she's faded into the background of competitive play, content to steal wins in an atmosphere tuned to other heroes rather than calling all challengers. Oldhim, in contrast, has acted as gatekeeper for what feels like an eternity; he's an evergreen threat that must be answered in order to outplace him in the finals of any event. Watching these two square off- both steps away from exiting the scene- felt like a final proving ground, a classic Hulk vs. Thing throwdown, if you'll indulge the comic book allusion, to settle who's the strongest.

A deck's run to the top in this meta does well to run through Oldhim; it legitimizes it as a true contender, and because of that, I really liked seeing him exactly once in the Top 8. As you'd expect, the full force of Lexi converted into multiple Top 8 appearances; but at the end of the day, arrows failed to pierce both armor and scale.

Scale, because the true feature here was Dromai.

Hard-Earned Accolades

The Top 8 of the Pro Tour was incredible. Rangers snapped back from a fringe choice (at best) to a threat capable of navigating a varied and complex field of competitors. Dromai - considered a fandom pick that seldom earned its popularity by performance - maneuvered two vastly different decks to the top tables. And Michael Feng (destined to be the Pro Tour champion) showcased true mastery of Oldhim that elevated him above his peers.

Michael's gameplay was, objectively, incredible. The Oldhim playstyle isn't for everyone - which can be said of many playstyles, let's be fair - but let's note that his last two games were both against Dromai, and he had the savvy to fatigue one in a 2 hour marathon and aggro down the other in 30 minutes. His ability to read his opponent's deck and vary his gameplan, even into the same hero, is remarkable and showcases how he out-performed every other Oldhim player there.

And on that note, it must be said that Mara Faris - piloting a variant of Dromai that she has championed contrary to popular opinion, has earned this spotlight and then some. Mara consistently presented creative solutions to the toughest problems in the game, and delivered wins that seemed impossible. Even decks that commonly consider Dromai an easy matchup struggled to overcome the Draconic pressure she was able to exert.

Azalea deserves a moment of recognition here for 'Most Improved', but it's not just for appearing in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. Over at the Calling, Jacob Kissel was doing more than proving that the 'worst hero in the game' could go the distance; he did it with a bow that had been largely written off. Watch for Sandscour Greatbow to drastically increase in playtime; he's debuted an entirely new archetype on the grand stage. Below, the Calling's Top 8:

Something for Everyone

Undoubtedly, entertaining competitive play is a critical aspect of a successful game. And Flesh and Blood offers that in spades. But it's the community aspects that made this past weekend a stunning example of how good this game is.

In the days following the event, players from streamed matches, top placement, and even those who didn't get to debut their builds have taken to the internet to share their decklists and strategies, for the benefit of their tribes and the game at large. The openness of these players is incredible; and the innovation and creativity on display is refreshing for anyone who's spent time in other TCG communities, where complaints and calls for nerfs overshadow the work to evolve the meta beyond the dominant deck of the day.

Because of this, the days following a major event are pure fuel for deckbuilders like me. Inspired by what we see on stream and across the community, we take to our collections with fresh eyes, rediscovering cards and sets and heroes. Some games stagnate between set releases; but FAB hits in waves, with each major event sending ripples out once more.

If deckbuilding isn't your thing, there's the announcement of Dusk Till Dawn - and it looks like LSS is capitalizing on the hype of its 10th release at every opportunity.

And mention has to be made of the growing cosplay community. It's been incredible watching it develop beyond a few 'professionals' personifying the major players; now, you might have to do some research to find the source for their character.

Their references, of course, are the work of remarkable artists who engender a following of their own. It's clear that LSS recognizes this, as so much of the prizing in this game celebrates art. For some of us, this is one of the most exciting parts of the game, and consistently finding artists included in FAB events feels so right.

The game encompasses so many different elements, giving fans multiple levels to engage with it. And on all those levels, Flesh and Blood is succeeding. It's a hobby that never feels soulless. And the community built around it matches that, beat for beat.

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